Origin of the word "Gizmo" (also "dudgeon" footnote)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon Dec 4 02:19:08 UTC 2006


>3) In my study of various foreign languages there were moments when I
>witnessed (occasionally as participant) the intentional but humorous
>butchering of foreign phrases.  There was French "merkee buckup" (merci
>beaucoup) and the Russian word for "hello": "Straws with you"
>(zdravstvuite).  In fact, for at least twenty years after graduating
>college, the letters I received from one of my friends who had studied
>Russian with me as an undergraduate would begin with "Straws!"
>4) In his message below, Jonathan Lighter suggests that we look for the
>origin of "gizmo" in a Pacific Rim language. Here's one possibility,
>however incorrect it may turn out to be.  In Japanese, "thank you" is
>"arigato" or (with an honorific) "arigato gozaimasu."
>(The final "u" here isn't pronounced; and btw, my knowledge of Japanese is
>almost non-existent).
>5) I now have a question for someone familiar with Japanese: Might some
>Americans studying Japanese or just picking up a few of its phrases have
>horsed around with "arigato gozaimasu" and altered it humorously to
>"arigato gizmo?" I.e., the sound of the second word is changed by partial
>analogy to the first word.  Cf. a similar development in American G.I.
>slang "mox nix," where the "x" in "mox" comes from the "x" in "nix";
>standard German is "(Das) macht nichts" = That doesn't  matter.
>6) If in fact some Americans did humorously/sophomorically say "arigato
>gizmo," the "rig" in "arigato" could be further humorously reanalyzed into
>the English word "rig" and the phrase might now sound something like "a
>rigged up gizmo." I.e., a contraption. I.e., a gizmo.

However, the borrowing-with-malapropism (or whatever it's called)
exemplified in (3) has, I think, the following usual features:

(a) the source language is one which is read/heard by those who do the
(b) the borrowed word(s) is/are changed to some orthographically and/or
phonetically similar pre-existing word(s) in the recipient language
(English here);
(c) the meaning of the mangled loan expression is unchanged.

The example in (3) has these features: (a) it's done by Russian students;
(b) the humorous new expression is "straws ...", conventional English in
form, not "zidderubs ..." or some other previously unknown word(s); (c) the
result is an equivalent or 'synonym' of "zdravstvuyte", rather than having
some different or arbitrary meaning.

So if there were, for example, a new word "gizmo" meaning "thank you"
originating among US military in Japan ca. 1948, I think the above type of
conjecture would be very plausible, with "[arigatou] gozaimasu" altered to
match pre-existing "gizmo", altered by Americans exposed to Japanese and
Japanese-English pidgin.

But "gizmo" originated in 1942 or maybe a little earlier according to the
record. There were some crash courses in Japanese in response to Pearl
Harbor etc., so maybe feature (a) can be asserted (although I'm skeptical).
However there is no obvious reason to make an entirely new word "gizmo"
instead of (say) "gezundheit", and there is no obvious reason for the word
to change its meaning to "gadget"/"whatsit".

[For comparison after WW II US military pidgin had "alligator" for
"arigatou" and "don't-touch-my-mustache" for "dou itashimashite" (like
"you're welcome").]

So I think the new word "gizmo" was very unlikely to arise as in (5)-(6)
above. (Of course very unlikely things do happen once in a while.)

(OTOH, I think "dudgeon" as in "in high dudgeon" is very plausibly
explained by the borrowing mechanism in question: French (or less likely
Latin) "indigne" meaning "indignant" read humorously or erroneously as if
"indigen" or so, thus new English "in digeon/dudgeon" meaning
"indignant[ly]" (where "digeon" is a variant of the older English word
"dudgeon" = "type of wood" [OED]), then "dudgeon" = "indignation" or so by
back-formation. I highly doubt that I'm the first or second or third to
independently speculate such an obvious etymology for "dudgeon", although I
don't find it on the Web or in my books at a glance right now. Maybe some
of the savants can see a major flaw?)

-- Doug Wilson

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